Sixth Sunday after Epiphany 2006

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on February 12, 2006. 
Mark 1:40-45 (Epiphany 6, Year A).

Not quite finished and not preached due to a blizzard!

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Which, if you’ve seen my desk recently, is unfortunate. But I always hold out hope. Because I’m a binge cleaner. After a few months of mess, when I can’t take it anymore, I set aside an hour on a quiet afternoon, put on some loud music, and start wading through the piles. I’m due.

But if cleanliness really is next to godliness, I wonder why Jesus spent so much time with the unclean. I wonder why Jesus spent so much time with the ritually impure, with the spiritually unwashed — tax collectors, sinners, and as we hear this morning, lepers.

Lepers play an interesting role in Scripture. Today when we speak of a leper we’re referring metaphorically to someone who is untouchable. A social outcast. Someone we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But in the world of ancient Palestine leprosy was something very real. A leper was anyone with one of a variety of skin conditions. They usually had scales or flakes and may or may not have been contagious. But one thing was clear, no one wanted to be around them. No one wanted to be around a person who was afflicted by a divine curse. Not just because of fear of disease but also for fear of being made ritually unclean. Observant Jews literally avoided lepers like the plague. And if they did accidentally come into contact with one, they were obligated to undergo a whole series of ritual washings and purity cleansings.

So the religious establishment, the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have been shocked at Jesus’ actions in this encounter. Not only did Jesus speak with this leper, he touched him. Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the man’s scaly skin. And in so doing, Jesus himself, according to the Law of Moses, becomes unclean.

Now there’s a thought: Jesus becoming impure. The divine becoming unclean. Evidently cleanliness is not always next to godliness. But of course God cannot be made unclean by someone God has created. And this whole notion of God being made unclean exposes the inherent folly. Human beings can’t declare what is clean and what is pure. That’s not our problem. And God isn’t our divine mother always telling us to clean our room.

On one level this passage is a simple healing story. But at another, deeper level Jesus is highlighting the absurdity of creating barriers between people. Condemning another person as impure does make us feel better on a superficial level. It makes us feel superior. But of course this is not what Jesus had in mind when he said “blessed are the pure in heart.” Blessed are those who break down the false barriers between one another. Blessed are those who don’t need to put others down to build themselves up.

The larger point here is that God’s presence creates holiness.

It’s also a lesson about drawing people out of isolation. The loneliness of leprosy must have been devastating. It forces us to think about people we ourselves isolate. It’s often the people who need human touch the most. People who have recently been diagnosed with disease or people who have recently suffered the loss of a loved one. We isolate them out of our own fear. We don’t know what to say, we want to give them space or time to grieve. And so we don’t call or write. And their isolation and loneliness is compounded. I’ve been guilty of this. I once assumed a friend whose brother killed himself need some time to deal with it alone. Or at leas that’s what I told myself because I had no idea what to say. Only to discover that everyone was doing the same thing. We were lucky to later talk about this and I was able to apologize. But in these cases it’s important to reflect on Jesus’ touch. How he draws the leper out of isolation and despair and back into the mainstream of human life. Our touch can be a healing touch. We have more power than we know. In the name of Jesus Christ we should exercise it.

While many of our well-known proverbs come from Scripture, usually the Book of Proverbs, Cleanliness is next to godliness does not. It’s said by some to come from ancient Hebrew writings but its first appearance in English appears to be in the writings of Francis Bacon who, in 1605, wrote, “Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.” John Wesley then wrote in one of his sermons in 1791 that “Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness.”

Cleanliness was a big issue in Scripture. The Pharisees were forever condemning Jesus in these matters. Allowing the disciples to eat without washing their hands, eating with sinners, touching lepers, and so forth. But, as Barbara Crafton has written, the Pharisees “had lost the ability to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral and took the easy way out of making that judgment — everything was central. There was no peripheral.” Which, ironically means they lost sight of the big picture. The lame walk, the blind see, the mute speak, the lepers are cleansed. Which, of course, transcends the minutia of cleanliness.

I’ll get to my desk soon enough. But in the meantime, I’ll try to focus more on the godliness than the cleanliness. That, after all, is the important part.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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